Sacramento's defense sets it apart from opponents
A Thin White Line
By Brad Friedman, WNBA.com
Following a Game 2 loss to Connecticut Thursday night, Sacramento coach John Whisenant wondered aloud to the media why anyone would leave Sun hero Brooke Wyckoff open for her overtime forcing three-pointer with 2.0 seconds left in regulation.
In his heart, however, he knew the answer. Ironically, it had everything to do with why Sacramento was playing in that Finals contest in the first place.
The culprit was his "White Line Defense," imported from Whisenant's days as an assistant at New Mexico, when the Lobos were ranked in the top three in the nation and built around a ball-hawking guard in future Lakers stopper Michael Cooper. That defense helped the Monarch's top the WNBA in defense this season at 61.6 points per game.
So what is the White Line Defense?
"Really it's just weakside help," Whisenant said at Saturday's media availability session. "It's just a reminder to have the players off the ball over in a help position -- seeing their man and the ball when they're not on the ball, so if one of their teammates does get beat guarding the ball, they're in a position to help and prevent a layup."
Before the Sun's overtime-forcing three-pointer Thursday night, Whisenant told his players to play a traditional man-to-man defense, which he admitted the team doesn't even use in practice. When Connecticut pivot Taj McWilliams-Franklin had the ball in the lane -- in position for what would have been a likely irrelevant two-point basket -- Sacramento forward DeMya Walker left her opponent Wyckoff on the weakside to move to the imaginary white line that splits the paint in half vertically.
"DeMya's been with us for two-and-half years and is conditioned to come (help) and stop a layup," he said. "Mistakenly, in this case, she was stopping Taj from going to the basket when we in fact wanted Taj to. They hit Brooke on the wing. Kara Lawson tried to rotate to help DeMya but it was too late, and that cost us the ball game."
"The players are just so programmed to rotate," explained Ruthie Bolton, a Monarchs legend who retired last season, about the miscue. "It becomes automatic."
Automatic, indeed. Sacramento forced the second-most steals in the WNBA this season, leading to the type of up-tempo scoring opportunity the defense is designed to fuel. Opponents are gradually worn down, with four guards and five frontcourt players used per game to throw fresh sets of scurrying legs at foes. Three of Whisenant's former teams at the Division I and junior college level led the nation in scoring; the Monarchs ranked fourth this year while posting the second-best record in the league.
"We're not trying to hold the ball," he said. "Just because we're playing good defense doesn't mean we want to hold the ball on the other end. We don't always create turnovers. Sometimes it creates off balance shots. And it's an opportunity for us to run against an off balance opponent."
With a quarterback like WNBA all-time assist leader Ticha Penicheiro at the helm, the Monarchs are able to push the ball from free throw line to free throw line in a hurry. But a recent injury to their floor leader has slowed the team, both in terms of its momentum and tempo.
"That's what we've missed in the Finals," said Whisenant. "Once she sprained her ankle, she wasn't the old Ticha. We're hoping to see her again because none of the other guards are as adept at doing that as she is."
Whisenant also worried about the Sun's eight-three pointers in Game 2, saying it was an indication that primary defenders were getting beat off the dribble to frequently.
"If you're constantly having to give help and moving to the white line, you're constantly giving them open shooters," he remarked.
That's the nature of the defense -- it's a gamble that makes Sacramento both strong and vunerable at the same time. Judging by how far that gamble has taken the Monarchs -- all the way to the WNBA Finals -- it's a sure bet that it won't be abandoned anytime soon.